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COVER STORY

Them's Fightin' Words

Screaming fights. Onstage brawls. Angry confrontations. The only thing these people can agree on is that Jerry Springer's rage-filled talk show is a smash.

April 05, 1998|Greg Braxton | Greg Braxton is a Times staff writer

CHICAGO — Far above pedestrians shivering in the damp chill of downtown, in a high-rise studio inside the NBC Tower, two men are engaged in mortal combat, trying to beat the daylights out of each other.

One warrior is a 28-year-old who is trying to reconcile with his wife of six years. His opponent is the wife's new 25-year-old boyfriend, who wants her to dump her husband once and for all.

As the object of their affection looks on, the men rush each other and crash in a heap of flying fists and legs--and the studio audience erupts with cheers. The combatants wrestle so furiously that they fall off the stage, pursued by burly security guards and a cameraman trying to get a better shot of the action.

Once separated, the two suitors, their chests heaving with anger and adrenaline, retire to their respective chairs.

A bespectacled man in a designer suit approaches the trio.

"All right now!" Jerry Springer says with a bemused smile. "I don't wanna have to come up there!"

The frenzied audience members pump their fists and launch into a ritual chant: "JER-RY! JER-RY! JER-RY!"

Springer fever is in the air.

Three years after the shooting death involving guests on "The Jenny Jones Show" and the subsequent failure of lowbrow, confrontational talk series such as "The Richard Bey Show" and "Charles Perez" that drew the wrath of politicians and advertisers, the "Jerry Springer Show" has fought its way--literally and figuratively--to the head of the talk-show pack.

National viewership has grown from 3 million per episode last year to 11 million this year. During one week in February, "Springer" became the first syndicated talk show in 11 years to beat "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in ratings. They tied the following two weeks and Springer has been running a close second since then.

With its outlandish mix of acid-laced language, explosive brawls, themes such as "I Am Pregnant by a Transsexual," "Prostitutes Vs. Pimps!," "Mistresses Attack," "I Want Your Man" and "Paternity Test: I Slept With Two Brothers," Springer's series has also become a cultural touchstone for comedians, columnists and commentators.

On "Springer," guests don't just sit in their chairs--they throw them. Finger-pointing, rage-filled confrontations are the order of the day, with friends and family members coming to blows in virtually every show. Male guests strike female guests; even pregnant women are caught up in the fisticuffs. Clothes come off--sometimes voluntarily, sometimes involuntarily. Therapists who can help put the conflicts in perspective or push the guests toward resolution, as they do on "Ricki Lake" and "Sally Jessy Raphael," are nowhere to be found. The studio audience gives an automatic standing ovation to each clash, and regularly insults the participants during the question-and-answer segment.

If you've tuned to "Springer" looking for a tearful family reunion, a fashion make-over or a more heartwarming tale about triumph over adversity, you've hit the wrong remote control button.

In the spotlight away from the onstage ruckus is Springer, a mild-mannered 54-year-old whose former life included a stint as the mayor of Cincinnati. The program has transformed him into an unlikely media icon, crossing generational and racial lines. He has become a favorite on college campuses, selling out speaking engagements around the country. Students regard the show as an entertaining spectacle and see the host as a combination ringmaster/father figure/sex symbol. MTV featured him in "Springer Break" specials during the network's recent Spring Break jaunt in Jamaica.

Fans of "Jerry Springer" call the show a hoot that is not dissimilar to a professional wrestling match where the good guys and the bad guys do mock battle. The star and his producers say the program, while intended to be entertaining, is also an in-your-face, unscripted microcosm of American life more real than slickly produced talk and entertainment shows that gloss over the effects of violence, infidelity and drugs.

Non-fans of "Springer" say the show's success is a sure indication that the apocalypse is close at hand.

Critics claim that "Springer" has reached the top by scraping the bottom. They denounce it as "trailer trash television" that deifies dysfunction, exploits unsophisticated guests and gives a promotional forum to the sexually confused and promiscuous, porn stars, adulterers, criminals, Ku Klux Klan members and various other ne'er-do-wells.

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